Life in a Southern Sawmill Community  
  A description of the Saner-Ragley Lumber Company at Carmona, Texas in 1930.  

Source: Chambers, Williams. "Life in a Southern Sawmill Community." Journal of Geography 30 (1931): 181-188.

  By William T. Chambers  

Carmona is a small sawmill community in the pine forest belt of eastern Texas. It is located in Polk County about twelve miles east of Groveton, the seat of Trinity County, with which it is connected by railroad and highway. The place is a property of the Saner-Ragley Lumber Company which purchased a 10,000 acre tract of virgin pine forest here about twenty years ago, erected a mill to cut the timber, and built a village to house employees engaged in the work. The mill is located on the northern margin of the tract where railway and road give contact with lumber markets and sources from which supplies are obtained. The tram railroad by which logs are brought to the mill has been lengthened as the logging "front" receded and is now about eight miles long. When the original forest holding was cut over, the purchase of additional stumpage perpetuated the life of the industry. But the timber reserve is again nearing exhaustion, being estimated as sufficient only for eight months' continuous operation.

Carmona is situated in an expanse of typical southeastern Texas cut-over and fire-swept forest land. It has an open stand of young second-growth pine and hardwood timber with much grass, and, since it is unfenced, farmers [1] use the land as free range for cattle, hogs, goats, and sheep. The village landscape is dominated by the sawmill with its large low buildings, high smoke stacks, rows of lumber ricks, and large mill ponds. The residential area is beside the mill. The rather small, old, unpainted wooden buildings have paper and galvanized iron roofs. They are arranged in rows along sandy streets which divide the land into rectangular blocks, and are overrun with grasses and weeds except where traffic keeps them bare. A company store or commissary retails general merchandise including such staple commodities as flour, corn meal, bacon, beans, potatoes, canned vegetables, work clothing, shoes, and gasoline. Neatly painted relatively new community church and public school buildings present a striking contrast to the characteristically weather-beaten structures of the village. The entire population, about half of which is colored, depends directly or indirectly upon the sawmill payroll for its livelihood.

The sawmill at Carmona is of moderate size, having a daily capacity of 40,000 board-feet of lumber. The turpentine camp has been discontinued because relatively small trees are being cut and prevailing prices for naval stores are low. Workers called "flatheads" fell trees at the logging front and cut their trunks into appropriate lengths. A skidder is not employed in dragging logs to the railroad track because operations are on a rather small scale. Workmen known as "swampers" clear away some of the underbrush so teams may be used in dragging logs into "bunches" at places accessible to trucks and carts which haul them to the railroad track. A loader operated by steam power places the logs upon cars, and train loads of them are transported to the mill and dumped into the log pond. Pilots guide the floating logs to a chain conveyor which drags them up an inclined trough into the mill. They are rolled upon the carriage and moved against the saws which cut them into slabs. After passing thru the edger and trimmer the lumber is sorted into various grades and sizes, ricked upon cars, and run into the kiln where it is thoroughly dried. If there is no immediate demand for the output, it is stored in warehouses to await sale. Most of the lumber is passed thru planing machines before it is shipped to market.

Rather heavy continuous labor and modest earning power are dominating factors in the life of the mill hand. He is tired and hungry when he comes from work at the close of day. After eating heartily of the plain nourishing foods prepared for the evening meal, he ordinarily desires to remain at home and rest in preparation for the labor of tomorrow. Hence relatively little time is spent working about the home, reading, or engaging in social activities. Cultural attainments tend to be dwarfed, and interests are narrowly centered upon the satisfaction of such basic and immediate needs as food, shelter, and clothing. The mill people support candidates who favor legislation to improve their industrial condition. Political abstractions such as "honest and businesslike administration of public office" and "sound economic policy" have secondary appeal only. Loyalty to political leadership which secured semimonthly payment in cash in lieu of monthly payment in company "checks", which are accepted at the commissary in payment for merchandise, is intense.

Women participate freely in the work and cares of mill town life. They prepare and serve the family food regularly; and many of them produce foodstuffs by tending a vegetable garden, milking a cow, or raising chickens. Poor white sandy soil limits the productivity of gardens; but free range upon grassy cut-over land makes the cost of keeping a cow negligible, and facilitates the raising of chickens altho wild animals prey upon them. The women of the community also spend much time keeping house, caring for children, and washing and ironing clothes. Limited income accentuates the housework problem by discouraging the employment of help and the purchase of labor saving devices which lighten household tasks.

The people save little or none of their incomes for use in time of emergency. This is said to be about as true of well paid men as of ordinary workmen. Apparently this is an adjustment to sawmill town environment which thwarts the development of a stable home owning society by causing all the people to live in rented houses and depend upon a single set of officials for continued employment there. As a result families are unprepared for sickness, accident, or loss of employment due to occasional depression of the lumber industry. In such cases the company grants employees limited credit at the commissary and discontinues the collection of house rent. It assumes liability for necessary hospitalization and medical service. Law requires the company to insure employees against industrial accident, and income from these policies frequently helps families thru trying experiences. Many of the men also have some life insurance. These arrangements facilitate evasion of such disaster as comes to persons having little or no financial resources.

The home and home life at Carmona are fairly typical of Southern sawmill towns. Workmen rent from the company dwellings which are supplied with water piped from a deep well, and are lighted by electricity generated at the mill. Staple foodstuffs are purchased from the company store at reasonable prices. Fresh vegetables, including tomatoes, sweet and Irish potatoes, watermelons, cantaloupes, and various sorts of peas are purchased from farmers who peddle produce in the village. Farmers also slaughter cattle and hogs raised on the free range, and market meat in Carmona. Foods obtained in the forest include blackberries, Mayhaws, nuts, muscadines (a variety of wild grape), and persimmons.

Fish, squirrels, rabbits, deer, quail, and wild ducks and geese contribute to the meat supply. Firewood for cooking and heating is made chiefly from scraps of wood obtained at the mill, altho some oak wood is purchased from farmers for use in heating. Many families own automobiles, and frequently drive to Groveton, the nearest important retail center. Here they shop and make contacts with the life of that small city.

Little is done to increase the attractiveness and beauty of the home and community. All buildings except the church and school are owned by the lumber company. None of them are painted, and their weather-beaten aspect is an expression of declining value and increasing neglect as timber reserves approach exhaustion. Employees move so frequently that they have small incentive to improve their rented homes by planting trees, cultivating shrubs, repairing fences, and developing the lawn. Deterioration is the inevitable result of temporary interest in the residences by both their owners and tenants. It is notable that virgin forest trees were not spared to shade homes from the unrelenting sunshine of this subtropical land. Men seem to develop antipathy for trees in regions where forest occupies the land. Farm homes in the section are also commonly placed in treeless clearings altho most of the land is still in woods.

Salaried employees, skilled workmen, and their families compose the local aristocracy. The superintendent of the mill is the highest paid man in the community and heads this group. It includes managers of the different departments of the mill, the commissary manager, saw filer, blacksmith and mechanic, engineer, log sealer, sawyer and physician. The ministers and teachers of the community are also admitted; This group has a relatively high standard of living because it possesses greater earning power and, excepting ministers and teachers, its members purchase supplies at cost from the commissary. These people have rather well furnished homes, possess radios, drive good automobiles, and employ help with the household work. As a group they are better educated than their fellows. Their work is less tiresome, they read the Houston Post Dispatch, subscribe to a few magazines, and have higher educational and social standards than other members of the community.


Recreational life at Carmona is intimately related to the forest environment. The wild game of the area includes deer, squirrels, foxes, wolves, turkeys, quail, and rabbits. It attracts men to spend much of their leisure hunting in season and practicing to develop marksmanship. Ducks and geese are hunted on the mill ponds during autumn and spring. The supply pond from which boiler water is obtained affords favorable places for swimming, Fish are caught here and in the log pond, and trips are also made to the Trinity and Neches rivers. Loafing and chatting with neighbors are other popular pastimes, baseball games and motoring are important attractions, and some families have a radio or one or more musical instruments.

Community life is well organized at Carmona. The commissary is a community store. There is a community or mill physician. The company deducts $1.50 a month from the earnings of married men and $1.00 from those of single men to use in employing a doctor, and his medical services are available to the people without additional charge. The company purchases group accident insurance for its employees, the policies being payable to the latter or their heirs in case of maturity. The church is a community institution. Methodist and Baptist ministers conduct services on alternate Sundays, and there is a Methodist Sunday school and a Baptist Young Peoples Union. Services are attended by the religious people of the community irrespective of denominational membership. The public school has grades from one to six inclusively, and pupils who wish to continue their work further are transferred to the school in Groveton. The white and Negro sections of Carmona are very distinct. They are situated some distance apart on opposite sides of the railroad track; and each has its own church, school, and self-contained social life.

What will succeed the era of forest exploitation which is drawing to a close at Carmona? Timber reserves now held by the company will soon be exhausted; and, altho some additional stumpage may be purchased, increasing scarcity of mature timber in the district indicates that ere long the mill must close down. Trees are growing on the cut-over land in spite of its use as free range and the ravages of fire, but they are too small and scattered to make good saw material. Utilization of this timber in making boxes, crates, laths, or paper would extend the life of the village. If the land were offered for sale to farmers, Carmona might become an agricultural community; but poor sandy soil, continued agricultural depression, steady urbanization of American society, and meager development obtained by this means in neighboring areas indicate that occupation of the land by farmers would occur slowly if at all. Staple field crops do not thrive without heavy fertilization and intelligent soil building. Melons, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, and several varieties of peas grow well; but commercial production would involve marketing in competition with established producers, most of whom have the advantages of better transportation services and greater proximity to large markets than Carmona. Given protection from fire, a dense stand of young trees would soon spring up, and if hogs were kept off the range, longleaf pines would grow [2] yielding a harvest of naval stores as well as poles, posts, and logs. The land might be fenced to exclude the livestock of the free range, and grazed continuously while another stand of timber develops. Used in this way it would yield an income while trees were growing, and rather close grazing of the grass would greatly reduce fire hazards.

These at least are some of the possibilities. Whether any of them will be realized in the near future is uncertain. In any case the land and its mineral right [3] are considered much too valuable to admit abandonment and reversion to the state for non-payment of taxes. In the meantime the fate of Carmona is uncertain. Will it successfully develop another economic base; or must it become, as many other Southern sawmill towns have, merely a few rows of rotting abandoned buildings along silent deserted streets in an expanse of sparsely peopled woodland.

Captions from images in the original article:
Fig. 1. Sawmill of the Saner-Ragley Lumber Company at Carmona. Note the unbroken background of second-growth forest. The margin of the logging railroad grade is seen in the extreme right foreground.

Fig. 2. View in the residential section for white people at Carmona. Note the white sandy soil which shows in the street and the small size of trees about the homes. In places there are no trees about the residences.

Fig. 3. A home in the Negro section of Carmona. The houses are smaller and less well equipped than in the white section.

Fig. 4. The building on the right is the school, and that on the left is the church. Note the rick of firewood between the buildings, the bare sandy soil about then, and the woods in the background.

Fig. 5. Cattle upon the range in an alluvial area near Carmona. The bush grown clearing in the foreground is an electric transmission line right of way.

Fig. 6. A woodland landscape near Carmona. Note the rotting stumps, the thin stand of young pine trees, and the spaces occupied by grass.

1. Farmers occupied some of the best land in this section of Texas before the rise of the lumber industry, and some of the cut-over land has also been developed for farming.

2. Hogs prevent development of second-growth longleaf pine timber by rooting up and devouring the roots of the young trees.

3. Most land owners in Texas confidently anticipate the discovery of oil upon their property.

Text and images were digitized and proofread from the original source documents by Murry Hammond. Contact Murry for all corrections, additions, and contributions of new material.